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What is gifted education?
Jun 10, 2018

Srinivas Jallepalliis the founder of Sankalpa Academy, a growth mindset school that seeks to offer gifted education to all children. Sankalpa Academy is located a few blocks from the Thinkery in the Mueller area and will be launching in Fall 2018.

 

In my previous blog post (the first of a three-part series), we investigated the idea that every child deserves a gifted education. As Matthew Mugo Fields, the founder of GiftedandTalented.com says, “gifted and talented” has to be the goal for every child and not a gate through which a small percentage enter. In this second part, we will look closely at what gifted education should entail.

Most gifted and talented (GT) programs primarily offer enrichment and acceleration to students who qualify. Schools often rely on a standardized test of cognitive abilities (IQ scores obtained using a Weschler test, for example) to determine the eligibility of a student. A small number of schools do also offer specialized programs to support creativity (the QUEST program in Leander Independent School District, for instance). These programs screen students using normative tests such as the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (Torrance 1998).

While there isn’t an universally accepted definition for a gifted student, the Marland Report from 1972 (Marland 1972) offers perhaps the broadest and most complete definition of giftedness. Interestingly, much before Howard Gardner proposed his theory of multiple intelligences (Gardner 1983), Marland’s report recognized students with a high level of functioning on talents and skills not measurable by an intelligence test as gifted. It defined gifted children as: "Children capable of high performance include those with demonstrated achievement and/or potential ability in any of the following areas, singly or in combination: General intellectual ability, Specific academic aptitude, Creative or productive thinking, Leadership ability, Visual and performing arts, or Psychomotor ability.” And, even though the federal report on improving education for the gifted and talented (National Excellence: A Case for Developing America’s Talent; U. S. Department of Education, 1993) had also recommended that schools broaden the definition of giftedness, there hasn’t been the funding necessary to make that recommendation a reality.

While the Marland Report is a significant step forward, it still does not include several competencies (grit, gratification deferment and emotional intelligence, for example) that can have a significant bearing on life outcomes. These competencies are typically not the direct or indirect objectives of the curriculum in most schools. However, this is not the case in all countries, as Jim Stigler discovered. Stigler, now a professor of psychology at UCLA, recounts an incident (Stevenson 1992) that happened in a fourth-grade Japanese Math classroom in 1979. He was in Japan studying the teaching methods there as part of his graduate work at the University of Michigan. The class was asked to draw a three-dimensional cube on paper. The teacher then walked around the class inspecting the students’ work. He eventually picked out a student who was having the most difficulty and asked him to come up and draw the cube on the board. Stigler was surprised since usually the best kid in class is invited to the board in American classrooms. He watched with interest at first and then with increasing trepidation as many minutes rolled by and the child continued to struggle. To make matters worse, the rest of the class was invited to periodically comment on whether the kid succeeded and they kept shaking their heads. Stigler was surprised and very relieved when this child eventually figured it out. The child had a huge smile when he finally nailed it and the rest of the class broke into an applause. The fact that the kid managed to keep his head down for that long and not break down into tears was an epiphany for Stigler. He had newfound appreciation for the role of struggle and grit in intellectual and emotional development. His observations and Carol Dweck’s subsequent research (Dweck 2006) have firmly established the significance of growth mindset in child development.

With this context in mind, at Sankalpa Academy, we took a fresh look at the notion of gifted education. We looked at all the elements that can play a significant role in helping a child reach her/his potential.

Environment is one of the most important of these elements as it provides the raw material for the body and mind. It can help when it provides optimum scaffolding as in Vygotsky’s model for "zone of proximal development“ (Vygotsky 1978) or hurt when it overloads children with sensory processing disorder. Ultimately, environment provides the experiences that feed our curiosity and open up channels of information for us. Our cognitive abilities process the information we seek out and relate it to what we already know. Each of us has our own distinct moral compass and it is our value system and empathy that enable the valuation of the information we receive, from multiple perspectives. While empathy typically refers to our ability to appreciate the other’s perspectives and circumstances, we cannot be truly empathic unless we also similarly understand our own needs. It is this valuation that helps us judge between different possibilities. Ambition is our potential to stretch our abilities and pursue one or more of the possibilities offered by our judgment. Creativity, on the other hand, takes us beyond these known possibilities and entices us to march ahead in new directions even when there is no inkling of a solution or even a well-defined problem for that matter. Since true empowerment requires metacognition and a deep awareness of the learning process, communication skills are essential for building such awareness around our accomplishments, failures and the opportunities between them. Finally, a seeker has to be enchanted by the subject material. Enchantment feeds off of the pleasure that comes from a sense of accomplishment and belonging. Engagement is therefore a useful barometer of this cycle of learning and enchantment and provides valuable insights into the child’s purpose.

We therefore subscribe to the view that gifted education should comprise an intimate understanding and development of the learning environment, curiosity, cognition, empathy, ambition, creativity, communication and engagement of each child. Each of these domains will of course come with its own subscales. The subscales for ambition, for instance, are goal setting, grit and gratification deferment, among others.

While our vision for a gifted education is quite heart-warming, many public schools are struggling to fund even a basic version of gifted education for under 10% of its population. Isn’t it too ambitious then to expect schools to offer a curriculum that includes Individualized Learning Plans (ILPs) for every child and a curriculum that is conversant with the environment and the core competencies of all children? Please stay tuned as I explore this further in the last part of my three-part blog series.

 

References:

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Gardner, Howard. (2008). Wrestling with Jean Piaget, my Paragon. http://www.edge.org/q2008/q08_1.html

Marland, S. P., Jr. (1972). Education of the gifted and talented: Report to the Congress of the United States by the U.S. Commissioner of Education and background papers submitted to the U.S. Office of Education, 2 vols. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. (Government Documents Y4.L 11/2: G36)

QUEST. https://www.leanderisd.org/cms/one.aspx?pageId=327120

Stevenson, H. W. and Stigler, J. W. (1992). The learning gap:  Why our schools are failing, and what we can learn from Japanese and Chinese education.  New York: Summit Books.

Torrance, E. P. (1998). The Torrance tests of creative thinking norms -- technical manual figural (streamlined) forms A & B. Bensenville, IL: Scholastic Testing Service, Inc.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement. (1993). National excellence: A case for developing America’s talent. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Vygotsky, Lev S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.